Thursday, August 27, 2009

We Visit San Juan (but not the one in Puerto Rico)

So, last week we took off three days in the middle of the week (Tues, Wend, Thur) to visit San Juan Island, the largest in the San Juan Islands group in the Puget Sound, between Vancouver Island and Bellingham. This is a spot I've been wanting to get us to for several years now, but after three failed attempts that had all fallen through for one reason or another had about given up on. As it turns out, it was well worth the wait.

Rather than battle rushhour traffic going north on I-5 Tuesday morning, we drove up the night before as far as Anacortes (famous, according to wikipedia, as the spot where Burl Ives spent his final years), which turned out to be a pleasant little town with an interesting approach to murals. Rather than a single more or less cheesy mural of ye olde bygone days somewhere on the town square that you get in many small towns, Anacortes has broken theirs up into individual images -- a person, an antique car, a former shopfront, and the like; more than a hundred in all -- and scattered them all over the downtown, particularly the 'Old Town' section. We stayed at the Anaco Bay Inn, a v. welcoming spot I'd be happy to visit again, and had dinner at Adrift, a nice place that features local-grown produce and fresh-caught fish. On the way back to our car afterwards we saw a shy but determined small black cat making its way carefully through the downtown.

The next morning, Tuesday, was both leasurely and hurried, when we learned, round about what wd have been breakfast-time, that you needed to be ready and waiting in line at the ferry an hour and forty-five minutes before its scheduled departure. A hasty packing and anxious trip got us to the other side of town, where after passing through the slowest line in the world we cd settle down for the long, uneventful wait; the most interesting thing we saw over the next hour were a half-dozen or so herons clustered together on the tidal sands. And, once we were aboard the ferry, the discovery that the pilings of the ferry terminal were rookeries to more cormorants than I have ever seen gathered together in my life.

After about an hour-long ferry ride, which was uneventful, just as you'd want a ferry ride to be, we arrived in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island's only town. After getting a quick lunch (marked mainly by one of the other diners at a nearby table's having the exact same accent as our friend Christina), we went ahead and booked places aboard a whale-watching boat for a three-hour excursion,* departing at 5 o'clock. That left us with time to drive half-way across the island and check into our B&B, the States Inn & Ranch (so called because each of its rooms is named after a state -- for example, we stayed in the South Carolina Room). In addition to being a B&B (and a v. fine one at that), this is also an alpaca farm, which kindly keeps little baggies full of chopped carrots as alpaca snacks for guests to feed the resident fuzzy little camels.

Then it was back to Friday Harbor and to sea aboard San Juan Safari's The Sea Lion. We traveled clockwise around the island, starting from the middle of the eastern side. We had a wonderful time, not least because the resident naturalist aboard handed out some excellent binoculars, though I mainly stuck with our little monocular, since I couldn't see out of both sides of the binocular at once anyway. Besides such sights as Mount Baker looming in the distance behind the Cattle Point lighthouse (as I think it was called), we got to see a pair of Dall's porpoise early on and, towards the end of the trip, a private island stocked with Sitka deer, moulan sheep & rams, a bald eagle that glared at us from atop a dead tree and seemed to feel we shd move along and leave it in peace, a number of harbor seals near the rocks along the shore. One of the less flashy but still interesting sights were the red Lion's Mane jellyfish thick in the water -- our guide turned out not to know about the Sherlock Holmes story featuring this creature (in which it sounds as if Conan Doyle departed from fact, neither the first nor the last writer of detective fiction to have done so). 

And of course, best of all, the orcas (or, as they used to be known, Killer Whales), which came smack dab in the middle of our boat trip and was by far the best part of it. Our boat came across a group of them a little to the south of Deadman Cove,** where we watched them for the better part of an hour (at least forty-five minutes). They travel all in a line, making them hard to count: first you see a fin, then it breathes (and you can usually see the spray of mist from its blowhole, and sometimes hear it exhale), then you see the tail. But if you're new at this, as we were, just what part belongs to who is hard to work out. I tried to count the breaths and thought there were six of them in all; afterwards our naturalist said there were ten. To my surprise, she could identify them all (the fin-markings on each whale are slightly different to the practiced eye)  as belonging to L-pod, the largest of the three in the Sound (the others being J-pod and K-pod -- there are only about seventy-eight whales in all three pods combined). The eldest two we saw were Ocean Sun (L25, b.1928) and Alexis (L12, b. 1933) -- and yes, it was disconcerting in itself to find out that these two whales were about the age of our parents [according to the whalebook we saw later in the Whale Museum they said the eldest in the Sound was born in 1911]. The ones we saw the most of were L41 (Mega) and his sisters Matia (L77) and Calypso (L94); she said Spirit (L22), her brother Onyx (L87), and her sons Skane (L79) and Solstice (L89) were also there.

Hard to beat something like that, so we thought we'd just have supper and then head on back to the B&B. We stopped by Maloula's (a Syrian restaurant in Friday Harbor? sounded interesting), but they were closed, so we had to settle for a somewhat unsatisfactory supper elsewhere (something that was to become somewhat of a theme with this vacation). I forget what Janice had, but my soup turned out to have the consistency of grits and the appearance of grey applesauce.

By then it was late, so back we went to the States Inn & Ranch. Parking the car, we were reminded what a night sky can look like without big city light pollution: there were a million million stars. I didn't think to take my star chart, but even so I could make out  both dippers, Cepheus, Casseopia, Arcturus (& thus Bootes). Best of all, the Milky Way was better than I've ever seen it except on Mauna Kea.

to be continued . . . 
*[and if the words A Three Hour Tour don't immediately come to your mind, you belong to a different generation than mine].

 **[where, according to our Deception Pass guide of last month, the bodies of Chinese immigrants dumped overboard by their smugglers in the Bad Old Days used to wash ashore. I was of course reminded of Wm Hope Hodgson's story FIFTY DEAD CHINAMEN ALL IN A ROW, but I'm probably the only one to ever have that reaction.

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